Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Traumatized, ‘We cannot walk alone’

  • Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. AP

Published: 1/15/2021 3:00:06 PM

We were already traumatized. Long before Jan. 6, 2021, countless citizens of the not-United States of America were already traumatized by the pandemic, by the immoral chasm between rich and poor in this country, by fears about the climate emergency, and by the litany of names of Black people killed by the police layered upon centuries of relentlessly vicious racism and racial injustice.

Before Jan. 6, we were already traumatized by living each day, each hour, with a disturbed, erratic, hate-filled and self-involved president. His behavior had us glued to the TV news while trying desperately to avoid watching it.

Throughout Trump’s harrowing rein of despotic rule, we experienced what Resmaa Menakem refers to as “trauma ghosting,” in his book “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.” This, he explains, is the body’s recurrent or pervasive sense that danger is just around the corner — that something terrible is going to happen at any moment.

Ever since Trump took office, so many of us have lived with trauma ghosting: unable to fully exhale, to believe that our family, friends and neighbors were safe. Trump’s deep pathology led to our deep trauma.

Trump’s lies, criminality and corruption caused many of us to experience symptoms associated with trauma: anxiety, depression, withdrawal (even beyond the isolation caused by the pandemic), mood swings, irritability, and feelings of hopelessness and numbness.

We were trauma victims even before Jan. 6, stumbling through our days, struggling to remain sane, to help one another, to stand up for justice and democracy, to merely hang in and hang on.

Then came Jan. 6. A homegrown mob of violent white supremacists stormed the Capitol, and our traumatized bodies watched with horror and revulsion at what we saw. Again, we wanted to look away yet we could not look away. We gasped and held our heads in our hands. We knew it might come to this, but we wanted to believe it never would.

Trauma has powerful and far-reaching effects. In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes: “Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them.”

On Jan. 6, we were “those around them.” We were “those around” our elected officials and their aides as they ducked, crouched behind benches, crawled and ran, took cover in hidden offices, said hushed prayers, and feared for their safety and their lives.

As individuals and as a nation as a whole, we have been traumatized and our trauma will not dissipate easily. “Traumatic experiences leave traces,” van der Kolk writes, “whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families … They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.”

The day after the insurrection, I was speaking to a member of my church, an older African American man. “We are so traumatized by the insurrection,” I said to him. “You are experiencing what people of color have lived with for so long,” he responded. “Now the whole nation is feeling traumatized — walking around stunned, disoriented, and scared,” he continued. After a pause he added, “White Americans have lost their innocence, that is now gone. This country will not be the same.”

I am not a trauma specialist. But I know what has happened cannot be undone. “What can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on the body, mind and spirit,” van der Kolk writes. “Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself … the challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self.”

As a pastor, I know that one way to move forward is to reach out metaphorically and take hands with friends, neighbors, loved ones, fellow activists, and members of our faith communities. Connection helps heal trauma. The philosopher Martin Buber, when asked “Where is God?” replied, “God is in relationships.” Now is the time when we can and will find strength, sustenance, and a way to recover from trauma and yes, even God, through deep, meaningful relationships. “We cannot walk alone,” Dr. King said in the shortest sentence in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Deep listening also helps heal trauma. When someone opens up to us and starts to talk about how traumatized they feel, our reaction is often to “cheer them up,” to paint a brighter picture, to espouse hope. But experts tell us that when someone tells you of their pain, the best response is simply, “Say more.” Just those two words can make a big different. “Say more.” Then listen with the ears of your heart.

Partnering with groups with a strategy to make a difference in this divided and troubled world will also help to heal from the trauma. The Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC), issued a statement in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying, “We know that the only antidote to this poison in our body politic is a moral fusion coalition committed to reconstructing democracy.” They continued, “This is what will protect our democracy and democratic institutions and build a stronger nation.”

Engaging in the work of the PPC and other effective and visionary organizations — locally, regionally, and nationally — to mend and repair our tattered democracy will help diminish the hopelessness and numbness of trauma.

We are not simply victims of trauma. We must now be dedicated to our recovery, to being trauma survivors, and to renewing our spirit to be strong, prophetic and even buoyant agents of change.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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